Oil and gas emissions can create ‘extreme’ ozone pollution, study finds

The Syncrude oil sands extraction facility is seen near the town of Fort McMurray, Alta., ~ MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images/Files

The Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. ~ MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Emissions wafting out of oil and gas operations can trigger “extreme” ozone pollution events that rival those seen in congested cities such as Los Angeles, according to an international study.

Extraordinary levels of ozone, which can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory problems, have been seen in rural areas of Utah and Wyoming where oil extraction and fracking have taken off.

Scientists say the same phenomena may also be occurring near oil and fracking operations in Canada — especially in mountainous regions where winter weather can trap and concentrate the emissions emitted by wells and extraction processes.

“I would expect any mountain basin that has oil and gas development in it and winter weather conditions to be subject to the same phenomenon,” Steven Brown, an atmospheric scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Postmedia News.

Brown and his colleagues reported Wednesday in the journal Nature that emissions from oil and gas operations can trigger “extreme winter ozone pollution events” that exceed national air quality standards.

“It’s shocking,” says co-author Cora Young, at Memorial University in Newfoundland, who initially didn’t believe the results she helped collect in a mountain basin in Utah where oil and gas wells are now operating across the landscape.

“I was like: ‘There must be a mistake, there must be a problem with the monitors,’” she said in an interview. “But it’s real.”

Winter ozone events have not been reported in Canada but the scientists say that could be due to lack of monitoring.

“It’s this combination of emissions and cold weather and snow that is causing this,” says Young. “And we certainly get snow in Canada, and we have the same emissions, so there is no reason to think it wouldn’t happen.”

Brown agrees and says “there is a lot of potential for this sort of thing to be going without being noticed.”

Atmospheric scientist Shoa-Meng Li at Environment Canada was also involved with the study but was unavailable for comment. And Environment Canada’s media office, which insists media requests be routed through its Ottawa operation, did not respond to questions about ozone monitoring near the rapidly expanding oil and gas operations in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

In the U.S., concern over air quality near oil and gas fields has been mounting since a high school science project in Wyoming turned up very high winter ozone levels a few years ago.

The new study confirms the students were on to a very real, but “unpredicted,” atmospheric phenomenon, says Brown.

For the Nature study, the scientists monitored the atmosphere in a mountain basin in northeastern Utah from 2012 to 2014 and found that nitrogen oxides and particularly high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can get trapped in the basin by winter weather inversions.  And sunlight reflecting off snow accelerates the ozone forming reaction during “cold, snowy stagnant periods.”

In several instances wintertime ozone in the Utah study area spiked well beyond the level deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2013 they exceeded national air quality standards on 49 days – almost twice as often as they were exceeded in Riverside, California, a part of the Los Angeles area notorious for its poor air quality. Ozone pollution can trigger chest pain, coughing and throat irritation, and worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.

“When you have air quality than resembles Houston or Los Angeles in a rural area that’s a serious problem,” says Young.

Nitric oxides and VOCs have long been known to create summer ozone events in congested cities, but the scientists found a different chemical process involving much higher levels of VOCs drives the winter ozone formation near the oil and gas fields.

“It’s really a combination of winter meteorology in mountain basins and this very unusual atmospheric chemistry,” says Brown. “Both are required for these events to occur.”

Brown says the ozone levels tend to build up over several days and in some cases as long as two weeks. “Timing really depends on how often storm systems come through,“ he says, noting how the storms blow the  pollution out of the mountain basins.

“My guess, based on the experience in Utah and Wyoming, is there will be more efforts towards monitoring in various locations in the U.S. and probably elsewhere.”

Twitter.Com/Margaretmunro

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